AP NEWS

EDITORIAL: Higher Education, and Its Students, Need More Support

March 29, 2019

On the surface, prospects for controlling costs in our public colleges have taken a positive turn, in light of statements by UMass officials and the governor’s intention to meet higher ed’s funding request. However, the underlining problem of underfunding and soaring student debt load serves as a sobering counterpoint.

UMass recently dispensed some clarity on what in-state undergraduates across the system -- excluding the medical school -- might expect to pay next year. UMass Senior Vice President of Administration and Finance Lisa Calise told state lawmakers if they include the university’s full $568.3 million funding request in next fiscal year’s budget -- a $26.2 million increase over fiscal 2019 -- UMass would be able to freeze tuition.

UMass President Marty Meehan reiterated that point Wednesday, but cautioned, “If not, our fiscal 2020 budget assumes a 2.5 percent increase for in-state undergraduate tuition.”

That increase would add approximately $370 to a tuition bill, pushing the total to about $15,100 for 2019-2020 academic year. Including fees and room and board, in-state students’ total cost would rise beyond $28,000.

Gov. Charlie Baker, in his fiscal 2020 spending plan, recommended funding UMass at $558 million, which Meehan said fully funds the state’s share of collective bargaining costs.

Uncertainty over the Legislature’s past reluctance to fully fund collective-bargaining agreements reached with university staff have complicated UMass’ efforts to keep cost increases predictable and minimal.

The more conservative House’s budget historically has followed the governor’s spending plan closely, which raises the odds of that tuition freeze.

In the abstract, numbers can’t relate the personal challenges students face trying to cope with the crippling cost of a college education.

Fitchburg State University student Alexander Ramos Jr., speaking at a “Fund Our Future” forum at FSU, said he’s frustrated with both financial and education demands. He said he was forced to work 30 hours a week, plus loans, to pay college expenses.

Unfortunately, his situation is common. About 84 percent of Fitchburg State’s Class of 2016 graduated with an average debt of about $26,600. So Ramos, and countless other UMass students, who’ll likely graduate more than $30,000 in debt, won’t get overly excited about a possible one-year tuition freeze.

One education funding bill before the Legislature, the Cherish Act, would freeze tuition and fees for five years and allocate more than $500 million extra for public higher education. That would help restore funding levels for public colleges, which, since fiscal 2001, have decreased by about one-third per college student, from $12,500 to $8,500.

Temporarily halting cost increases won’t solve the systemic problem. Finding that money will be a challenge, but to us a solvable one in a $40-billion-plus state budget.

We agree with one UMass Lowell student who testified before lawmakers in support of the Cherish Act: “Education has to be an escape from poverty, not a path to it.”